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Theatre Journal 54.4 (2002) 535-554
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Rude Mechanicals and the Specters of Marx
. . .
Dressing room and stage:
An actor leaves his room
A king enters the play,
And at this I've seen the stage hands
Laugh out loud with their bottles of beer. 1
. . .
In the above excerpt from Brecht's poem, the laughter of the stage hands suggests they know the difference between an actor and a king. But just what is the status of those ironic commentators vis-à-vis the stage? In what terms is it possible to bring them into a theoretical discourse on the nature of theatre?
Brecht, in the poem, indicates that conventional theatre is built on pretense and illusion. The word "theatre," moreover, is often a sign for the idea of phantasmic spectacle even if not all theatre, following Brecht, engages in the pretenses of illusion or mimetic representations of an imaginary world. The phantoms in the heart of theatre are difficult to displace no matter how many actual theatrical practices dispel them. They return to haunt even the most self-conscious or presentational modes of practice simply because the act of representation itself is constituted by a division that distinguishes it from other sorts of actions. With or without the sense of mimesis, representation is a kind of repetition that generates the phantom of a double. Explicit or implicit, the space marked out as theatre frames a difference and duplicity that is, apparently, distinctly different from the work of the stage hands. The act of representing in theatre, regardless of technique, generates questions about the double because that double is something both there, present, and not there. In his essay, "Street Scene," Brecht talks about the actor demonstrating not identifying with an accident victim; even there that victim is in a sense quite visible but is also not really there. By contrast, a stage hand, even when, for example, demonstrating how to pull a curtain, does not exhibit such a double. [End Page 535]
Any number of theatrical exercises play with the boundary marker between theatrical duplicity and the kind of singularity in the task that typifies the reality of that stage hand. When I say theatre is an arena for the phantasmic, I refer, then, not primarily to the illusions of theatre but to the strangeness of the fact that what is singularly visible is at the same time a double: something else is manifestly present but not necessarily identical to what is manifest. That something is not elsewhere, like a reference point outside. It is present, but also other. This idea sets theatre apart from performance to the degree that the word "performance" may designate something that actualizes, or is what it is, like an acrobatic performance or a car. One can certainly bracket an actor's performance and distinguish it from this phantasmic double as a skill or technique that has the power of virtuosity. On the other hand, to the degree that performance occurs theatrically, it performs the doubling. The theatrical frame proposes that there is more there than meets the eye. It might be more accurate then, to say that the meaningful element of the double is not so much absent as it is the invisible element of the visible. Theatre, in this view, undermines ontology, for whatever is on stage becomes itself in some sense by denying itself, generating what Herbert Blau has called the "dubious spectacle." 2 Somewhere between the dressing room and the stage, this happens.
The stage hands who operate the running of a production seem to be the antidote to such dubiousness. Practical, necessary, and concrete, their work, by comparison, has a kind of worldly reality that is more akin to performance than to the phantasm I call theatre. They seem firmly entrenched in the reality that Brecht distinguishes from the pretenses of bourgeois theatre's illusions. But to the extent that a mode of production is implicated in what it produces, I want to trace some of the possibilities for understanding how that very concrete labor might participate in...